The New Civil Rights Movement’s John Culhane is the official blogger for Equality Forum, Philadelphia’s internationally known and always interesting cavalcade of events that celebrates, informs and provokes on all (or many, anyway) things LGBT. John will be sharing reports daily over the next few days. Read all John’s Equality Forum posts here.
It’s fair to say that the Transgender Panel is the one I always await most eagerly at the annual Equality Forum. It’s uniformly interesting and edgy. And it’s nice to get beyond the formal equality that most often drives our sprawling community(ies) and into the murkier waters of social justice. Last night’s panel did not disappoint.
The room was packed by about 70 people, many of whom engaged the panelists in a dialogue that can only loosely be described as Q&A. As invited by moderator Joe Ippolito, the mostly transgender audience wove their compelling personal narratives into their exchanges with the willing panelists, who were very free about ceding air time. The panelists were: Jeanine Ruhsam, President of TransCentral Pennsylvania (an advocacy group); Melissa Sklarz, President of the Stonewall Democratic Club of NYC; and Kye Allums, who made history by playing for a women’s Division 1 basketball team at George Washington University while identifying as a male (despite female biological origin).
The evening had two themes. First, were the gay and lesbian advocates the natural advocates of the trans-community?
Second, what is the teaching role of transpeople? (Do they “still have to do these Trans 101s?” as Ippolito so perfectly asked.)
Addressing these themes allowed both panelists and audience members to share their personal stories and experiences in illuminating ways. For example, one audience member bemoaned the fact that she’s been doing trans-activism for almost “40 years, and [is] tired of it.” She also felt as though she was often a “trans-token” on LGB (not so much T) panels and boards.
Well, who wouldn’t get tired of this? And Ruhsam gently agreed that sometimes one just needs a break. But generally, the panelists and some of the audience members were committed to the on-going project of education, and thought that such education had already helped make lesbians and gays into the allies that we should have been long ago. Ruhsam noted that we all “mess with gender” in ways that are discomfiting to the sexual majority. (I’d agree, although it’s fair to say that some gay men and a few lesbians have tried to cover “our hurt with a show of gladness,” to quote Smokey Robinson. But no amount of adoption, mainstreaming or wishful thinking can change the brute facts.)
Sklarz thought that gays and lesbians were “maybe” natural allies to the transcommunity, but agreed with one astute audience member (me) that perhaps more support had come from the public health community. It’s easy to see why Sklarz — whom I’d describe, not uncharitably, as the most world-weary of the group — would be likely to view public health advocates as natural allies. She described her own long journey, a bumpy ride that included substance abuse and long-term unemployment (that started as soon as she began transitioning by taking hormones). It’s really the public health community that would look to particular communities to find practical solutions to these problems rather than the rights-driven approach of the mainstream lesbian and gay community. Yet Sklarz — now a high-profile Democrat, after all – understood the importance of alliances toward the goal of transrights, and said she’d take anyone who’d work with her. And some of these mainstream legal struggles — even for marriage equality — have resonance (although not in exactly the same way) for transfolks, too. (As Ippolito pointed out, even when they identify as man and woman, transpeople push the marriage equality movement in a way by undermining the gender norms of marriage.)
Allums had the least to say, and I’ll confess I wanted to hear more. He says he’s committed to traveling around the country and talking to whomever will listen about his experiences and the problems of bullying. He talks to the bulliers — a courageous act that, it seems, has changed at least some hearts and minds. Yet there’s so much rich ore to be mined in the whole area of transmen and women in sports. Although Allums didn’t talk much about his journey, I saw some parallels to Caster Semenya, the South African track star whose gender was notoriously called into question because she (1) “looks” more male than female; and (2) is very freaking fast. What determines who’s male and female? And how does the occasionally complex issue of gender affect the male-female to which sports is committed like few other areas of human striving?
Well, few other areas: Another is public bathrooms. As Sklarz painfully pointed out, the bathroom excuse for denying trans-equality emphasizes exactly the wrong class of victims — those who might have to share a public bathroom with those whose gender presentation makes them uncomfortable. But the law is really needed to protect the trans-community members themselves from violence and corrosive assumptions about “normalcy.”
Will things be better in twenty years? Answering an audience member’s question to that effect, the panelists were divided. But perhaps we can hope that we’re at least up to Trans 102 by then.
Were he born 10,000 years ago, John Culhane would not have survived to adulthood; he has no useful, practical skills. He is a law professor who writes about various and sundry topics, including: disaster compensation; tort law; public health law; literature; science; sports; his own personal life (when he can bear the humanity); and, especially, LGBT rights and issues. He teaches at the Widener University School of Law and is a Senior Fellow at the Thomas Jefferson School of Population Health.
He is also a contributor to Slate Magazine, and writes his own eclectic blog. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter if you’re blessed with lots of time.
John Culhane lives in the Powelton Village area of Philadelphia with his partner David and their twin daughters, Courtnee and Alexa. Each month, he awaits the third Saturday evening for the neighborhood Wine Club gathering.
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